Your Questions Answered for 20 Years


After 20 years of writing this column and answering, on average, four reader questions weekly, that’s 4,160 answers! My fingers should be ‘dog-tired,’ but instead I’m invigorated because each month (sometimes each week) I receive letters and emails saying my answers motivated someone a visit to a veterinarian, or even saved a pet’s life.

By far, the questions I’ve received most often over the years have been about “creative cats” who think outside their litter boxes.

As a certified animal behavior consultant, I am qualified to answer many pet behavior questions. Still, I often seek input from colleagues and veterinary behaviorists for additional perspective. Regarding medical questions, I always sniff out veterinary expertise, and many of the most renowned veterinary specialists have commented here.

For most of this column’s history, Dr. Sheldon Rubin read all my answers to insure accuracy. Now, Dr. Natalie Marks does the same, all for the benefit of pet owners. And for all 20 years, I’ve worked with the same editor from Tribune Content Agency, Stacy Deibler.

Although I’ve received a wide range of unusual queries, I never could have predicted these questions:

Q: My dog is seeing ghosts. I’m sure of it. At about 3 a.m., usually once a week, she stares at a wall — where the ghost must reveal itself to her — and emits a low deep growl and barks. What should I do? — B.D., San Diego, CA

A: Who you gonna call? Apparently me and not Ghostbusters. I suggest that your dog is not seeing ghosts, or anything else. Instead, she’s hearing something outside or even in your walls.  Could you have termites instead of ghosts? Could your dog be waking up from bad dreams? Also, you didn’t mention your dog’s age, but what you describe could be symptomatic of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (canine Alzheimer’s).


Q: Whenever certain people are on TV, our cat, Lilly, runs to the screen and begins to scratch. This always happens when she hears Justin Bieber. She goes crazy! Lilly’s claws have long been removed, so there’s no damage to the TV. Why does she respond this way? — S.U., Pasadena, CA

A: Cats often express their excitement with a good scratch. Even cats without claws will go through scratching motions. I can tell you that much. I can’t explain why your cat has ‘Bieber fever.’ Apparently, Lilly is a fan.


Q: My hedgehog seems to enjoy sleeping with me, but I’m worried that I may crush her. Any advice? –C.H., Las Vegas, NV

A: Despite your hedgehog’s apparent bond with you, I think you’re right to be concerned. Rolling over the wrong way might mean the demise of your prickly friend.


Q: We were sitting at dinner, and Marmalade began to meow. Then my husband meowed back a few times. Marmalade went crazy, I’d never seen her like this, and she actually attacked and bit my husband, then ran off screaming. Could he have said something in ‘cat language’ to offend her? — S.C., Marietta, GA

A: It’s not likely your husband’s “meow” offended Marmaladet. However, I do wonder if your cat (especially if she’s older) twisted the wrong way, it hurt, and your husband was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another possibility could be a seizure or other neurological concern. If such behavior recurs, see your veterinarian.


Q: On a walk, our dog, Payton, a male Shepherd/Collie mix, met up with two ladies with their female Miniature Schnauzer, Butch. I realize dogs don’t know a male name from a female mane, but people laugh at Butch all the time. This is wrong, and I assume the dog has a complex about it. What do you think? — S.H., Chicago, IL.

A: While people may smile or chuckle when they realize Butch is a female, it’s generally harmless. However, I do think that dogs can feel demeaned if teasing too far. My advice for Butch’s owners is to stay away from boorish, immature people. It’s not Butch with the complex; it’s people.


Q: What can you do with a potty-mouthed bird? Bingo, our 16-year-old Amazon parrot is a wonderful companion to our entire family. Our 14-year-old son has begun to use some bad language. We were tipped off when Bingo began to talk like a drunken sailor. I can deal with my son, but how do I deal with a bird who might shock my beloved Aunt Martha, who’s a nun? — S.J., Stillwater, OK

A: The most effective way to clean up Bingo’s language is to refuse to pay any attention to him for saying a bad word. Gradually teach Bingo new words, and while you’re at it, wildly reinforce his new vocabulary.

Replace each bad word with a similar-sounding but more acceptable word that you clearly repeat and use frequently. For example, you could teach your bird words like “truck” or “sit.” You could even show the object, a truck, or sit in a chair, so there’s a meaning attached.

While Bingo is a work in progress, perhaps Aunt Martha should keep her distance.

© Steve Dale Pet World, LLC; Tribune Content Agency